Christmas Craic and Mistletoe (SOT #3)

Excerpts from Parts I and II

    Paulo had packed light, not sure if he was going to find Harrison at all, or if he did, if Harrison would then shut the door in his face. Did he know Paulo was coming? Harrison was going to get a surprise when he saw him, either way. For a man who had always made a point of being well-groomed, it was sort of freeing to be traveling the roads of Ireland with his jacket, a single backpack with an extra pair of jeans, a few wrinkled shirts, and a bag of travel-sized hygiene products.
    He wondered if he should stop somewhere and shave, but hadn't Harrison always loved when his face was a little rough?
    God, he missed Harrison.
    Whatever miracle of arrogance, stubborn pride, or even hope that had seen Paulo through this far, also teased him with fantasy. He imagined Harrison grabbing him around the waist, kissing him, insisting they hole up in a hotel and make love for a week. He might need to buy some clothes then. That was nothing though, easily accomplished. He'd buy a whole new wardrobe and then donate it when they left the country if it meant things went well with Harrison.
    It was sometime around noon when Paulo realized his phone had died. Of the few things he'd brought with him, Paulo had been smart enough to include his phone charger. Unfortunately, intelligence failed him when he left it behind at JFK, still plugged into a free outlet.
    He pocketed the phone, watching as the impossibly beautiful green of the countryside passed him by. Everyone said it was verdant, but he'd never realized just how right they were.
    Nearby, a couple chatted. Two young men, sitting next to each other, a little too rigid, staring straight ahead. If they had just been friends, they would have been more relaxed, and the close proximity wouldn't have bothered them, but Paulo knew the look of a young man trying not to be too obvious. The five point five seconds before he was out as a gay man, Paulo had been the same as those boys.
    He smiled privately and wished them luck.
    There was a bus change in Newtownstewart that consisted of him walking a whole forty feet or so from one bus stop to the next. The delay waiting for the second bus was much more significant than the walk, and it was almost dark by the time they reached Omagh.
    With no cell phone to guide him to his next destination, Paulo decided he would stop somewhere to see if he could find a place to charge up his phone. It didn't seem like the sort of town that would have an internet café, but what did he know of quaint Irish towns, really? Maybe they had a hardcore underground technology scene. Paulo laughed. Lord, he was jetlagged.
    All he needed was an electrical outlet, a kind stranger with a cord, and a bit of luck that they fit. He walked into a corner pub and was washed over with the noise and bustle of men and women drinking Christmas Eve away.
    The woman behind the bar tossed him a hearty hello in her rich Irish accent. It made him feel immediately welcome, and he appreciated her for it. He greeted her back, though whether or not he could be heard over the noise was questionable. It seemed like everyone and their mother, sister, and third cousin, had turned out to this pub. He had to practically shove his way up to the bar and wave her back over because two people had called orders to her before he'd even reached her.
    "I'm sorry to bother you," he said with a tired smile.
    "No bother, love. What'll you have?"
    "Lemme have a Guinness. Wonder if it tastes the same as in the States."
    "Dunno." She winked at him. "Is that how you got that curly hair? If not, then you don't know what you're letting yourself in for."

    * * *

    It was all well and good being Michael's hero. He wasn't sure why he'd stepped up in the first place, but now it had become a way of dealing with his own lack of courage. He wasn't like the other lads. He wanted more than working to pay the rent and buy a couple of pints of a weekend, and he admired Mike, for knowing who he was and being true to himself, regardless of the hell the lads were putting him through.
    Tom could only imagine what it was like to be ostracised like that. He'd only ever been attracted to girls, only had girlfriends. He wasn't gay, like Mike, but at the same time, it was no longer enough to be Michael's distant protector. He wanted to be his friend. He wanted to get to know him, spend time together at the pictures, or in the pub, or wherever. He liked him, respected him, felt a tremendous amount of affection for him.
    Leaving the lights off, Tom turned the ignition key and quietly advanced along the lane, riding the clutch as he passed by the two men, still locked in an embrace. How in God's name are they still kissing? Have their lips frozen together? He shook his head and laughed to himself. They were completely unaware of his presence. He turned in at the gate, stopped the car, and reached over to the back seat to retrieve the gifts he'd brought. Nothing special - just a little bottle of port for Seamus and his partner, a bangle for Dee, who he only knew because she was attached to seventy-five percent of Mike's status updates, and for Michael, a guardian angel on a chunky chain. That one was special.
    Tom's palms were sweating, and he could barely push the button on the key fob to lock the car as he nervously set off across the farmyard, towards the big wooden door with the welcoming holly wreath. He could see Michael watching through the window, but Michael hadn't seen him, and when Tom knocked at the door, no one came to open it. He wasn't sure what to do. He supposed he could leave the presents on the doorstep and go home.
    He gave it another half a minute and was stooping to set the presents down when he heard a noise. The door latch? He froze, half crouched, and watched as the door opened, slowly and only by a few inches. Intrigued, Tom pushed on the door. A black nose poke through the gap. Seamus's border collie - he recalled her coming to work with him a few times.
    "Hello, lovely girl," he said quietly. She backed off, and Tom followed her into the warm farmhouse kitchen, filled with the smells of Christmas. Spices and alcohol and fruit and wood smoke. It was overwhelming, but in the best way, and suddenly he didn't feel quite so nervous.
    The dog was still watching him. He took a careful step towards her, and she spooked and fled through another doorway. Entranced, Tom followed her through a hallway. The whole house seemed to be deserted, and Tom was thinking he should probably leave, when a door at the other end of the hallway opened and Michael charged out.
    "Tess? Where are ye - oh! Hi." He saw Tom and stopped, like someone had pressed the pause button. His face was a picture. A red picture.
    Tom smiled. "Hi. I thought I'd drop in on my way to, er...well, anyway. I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas."
    Michael blinked at him, his eyes straying upwards.
    Tom self-consciously ran his hand over his hair, but it wasn't that. He tilted his head back and looked up at the ceiling, saw what was there, and looked back at Michael. He shrugged. "It's mistletoe, so...we should probably do the right thing? It doesn't have to - " mean anything...

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